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Bookends: History Provides an Intricate Tale of 19th Century Life and Murder August 16, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: History Provides an Intricate Tale of 19th Century Life and Murder

By Dan Davidson

June 13, 2012,         Star, June 15/12

– 944 words – 


Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

Read by Shelly Thompson

Chivers Audio Books

Via Aubible.com

16 hours


I suspect that Margaret Atwood go interested in the story of Grave Marks while she was reading Susanna Moodie’s work before writing the poems in The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), which would mean that the idea for this novel was gestating for a quarter century before it finally appeared in print. 

Marks was a real person, a 16-year-old Irish-Canadian housemaid who was tried and imprisoned for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/lover in 1843. Moodie visited her in both the prison in Kingston and the asylum where she was also incarcerated for a time, and recorded her observations in Life in the Clearings. 

The fact that Marks spent time in both institutions and inspired so much support among the liberal reformers of Upper Canada / Canada West / Ontario in her day, left Atwood with lots of latitude to create a novel around these events.

I must admit that the book has been staring at me accusingly from my unread shelf for about 15 years, and might be there yet except that Audible.com offered a bonus deal on it and we had planned a long road trip. The excellent unabridged reading by Shelly Thompson took us from Dawson to Whitehorse to Skagway and back up to Beaver Creek, so it was well worth the paltry sum I paid for it.

I am, on the other hand, happy to have the Bantam/Seal paperback edition to refer to. It clarifies the addition of the actual transcripts, poetic references and other extracts which Atwood chose to place between its 53 chapters, organized into 15 sections.

There are two main narrative voices here. One belongs to Grace and is first person, past and present tense. The other is that of a created character, Dr. Simon Jordon. He has been retained by the committee that seeks Grace’s release to determine the truth about the apparent amnesia, which surrounds her memory of the actual day the murder took place.

Simon is a sincere but somewhat callow young man who has bee avoiding his mother’s plans for his future happiness for some time, though he seems to be truly dedicated to the profession of mental healing, and an early advocate of the talking cure.

His plan is to take Grace by degrees through her life’s story and attempt to break though the memory barrier that seems to be there and which he believes is real.

In this manner we learn about Grace’s unhappy Irish childhood (shades of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes) and how the family eventually ended up in Upper Canada when she was in her early teens. The tale of their journey across the Atlantic is an epic it itself.

We learn of her time in service in various households in the Toronto area (an escape from her abusive father), and how she learned to be a capable house servant, of the relationships she formed and the tragic loss of her best friend in a botched abortion.

Eventually we approach her decision to move to the more rural area of Richmond Hill, there to work on what seemed at first to be a congenial rural estate. Soon, however, Grace begins to regret her decision to work for Mr. Thomas Kennear. His stable hand is a grim and sullen fellow. Her immediate boss, Nancy Montgomery, is a woman of uncertain temperament and is, in fact, living as her employer’s common-law mistress, something it takes naïve Grace a long time to work out.

When Nancy finds herself in a delicate condition, Grace begins to fear she will be the next to attract her employer’s attentions. Nancy’s tempestuous temper triggers violence in the heart of James McDermott, the stable hand, and he murders both his employer and his mistress, making off with Grace and escaping as far as a nearby town in the USA before they are captured.

Grace has never been able to recall the exact details of the murders, though she was encouraged by her lawyer to agree with much of the generally accepted account during her trial. McDermott was hanged, but her lawyer managed to save her life.

Decades have gone by when Simon Jordon enters her life, and his story is the other narrative (in the third person present tense). Simon means well, but he is something of a mess and finds himself at the emotional beck and call of women in trouble. He falls in love with Grace, who everyone but herself acknowledges is a fine looking woman is spite of being older than he is, and also falls in thrall to his unfortunate and needy landlady, who sets her sights on him as soon as her drunkard husband vanishes from sight.

That he would fall for two older women is less strange when we realize the degree to which his life has been dominated by his mother.

The story does end with Grace’s redemption, in final chapters that are pure fiction, because no one seems to know just what happened to her when she was finally released a few years after Confederation. Jordan’s investigations and experiments in hypnosis suggest a possible explanation for Grace’s involvement in the story and McDermott’s insistence that she had been an equal partner in the murders, but that is left unresolved. Real mysteries are seldom so tidy as those in books, and so I didn’t find this at all disappointing.

This was a fascinating story and a great companion on a long drive.






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